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Weird science: What-ifs for the last five Arizona Cardinals drafts

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You can look back on any draft and say “what if” your team took this player or that player. Let’s play the “what if” game for the last five Cardinals drafts.

NFL: SEP 15 Cardinals at Ravens
What if Lamar Jackson was scoring touchdowns for the Cardinals instead of against them in 2019?
Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It goes without saying that the NFL draft process is a weird science. How else to explain how players like Tom Brady (6th round in 2000), Antonio Brown (6th round in 2010), and Richard Sherman (5th round in 2011) slipped as far as they did? All 32 NFL franchises could have had these future Hall of Fame players if they had only known.

Those are extreme examples, but every NFL draft has a number of fascinating “what if” scenarios. A clear—and depressing—example for the Arizona Cardinals is the 2007 draft, when the Redbirds selected Levi Brown just two picks before the Vikings selected future HOFer Adrian Peterson. Ouch. That draft is still a sore spot for most Cardinals fans today.

The upcoming 2020 draft will undoubtedly produce a similar sob story for some NFL franchises. (Hopefully not ours!) We obviously don’t know the “what if” scenarios from this year’s draft yet, but we can definitely look back at recent drafts and imagine how those “what if” scenarios would have played out.

Let’s conduct our own weird science experiment and look back at the last five NFL drafts and see what players the Cardinals could have—and should have, in some cases—taken with their 1st round pick (with one exception), and see how those missed opportunities might have changed the trajectory of the franchise.

But first, a few ground rules:

  • No trades. This exercise won’t consider any trades the Cardinals could have made. They’ll be making the pick that had in that year’s draft, only. (Sorry, Patrick Mahomes in 2017 truthers.)
  • Play it as it lies. I’ll only consider players that were actually available when the Cardinals were on the clock in a particular year. (With one notable exception, which will make sense, I promise.)
  • No extreme hindsight. George Kittle went in the 5th round in 2017. There’s no way the Cardinals would have taken him in the 1st round that year, so the “what if” players will be players they conceivably could have drafted. (Trying to take into account needs, mock drafts at the time, etc.)

With the ground rules set, let’s take a look at last year’s draft and go back from there.

2019 Draft – Pick #1

The Pick: Kyler Murray (QB, Oklahoma)

The “What If”: Nick Bosa (DE, Ohio State)

Analysis: The “what if” player could just as easily been Quinnen Williams, a player many Cardinals fans were stumping for leading up to the draft. But Bosa already looks like the far better pro, so let’s go with him. What would the 2019 Arizona Cardinals have looked like with Bosa instead of Murray?

Almost certainly worse than the actual 5-10-1 record the team put up last year. In this scenario, we’d still have Josh Rosen under center and the offense would likely have been almost as putrid as the 2018 version. Rosen just isn’t a starting NFL quarterback. The rushing attack would have suffered without the threat of Murray taking off, meaning that even if the Kenyan Drake trade still happened, he wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact. The defense would have been better, sure, but probably not a ton. It’s likely the team would have been back in the running for the #1 overall pick. Maybe we lose that Bengals game in Week 5, which gives us the #1 pick at the end of the season? In that case, we’d have Bosa and probably Joe Burrow as compared to Kyler and the #8 pick. Which would you rather have moving forward? I’d still rather have Kyler, but it’s an interesting debate.

Side note: Without Drake establishing himself—or with the offense so bad that David Johnson lost any and all trade value—would the DJ-for-Hopkins trade have come together like it did? I tend to think it wouldn’t have in this scenario.

2018 Draft – Pick #10

The Pick: Josh Rosen (QB, UCLA)

The “What If”: Lamar Jackson (QB, Louisville)

Analysis: This is easily the most interesting “what if” on this list. Jackson is another player many Cardinals fans were touting leading up to the draft. He went all the way at #32 to the Ravens in 2018, but what if Steve Keim saw the same “fireworks” with Jackson as he did for Kyler the next year? It would have been a surprising pick to be sure, but it’s within the realm of possibility. So let’s imagine the 2018 with the Redbirds taking Jackson at #10 instead of Rosen.

The beginning of the season likely wouldn’t have changed much—Jackson would have begun the year behind Sam Bradford just like Rosen did, and the team would have stank up the joint just like they actually did back then. Just as Rosen did, Jackson would have taken over as starting QB at some point earlier in the season. So, just like he did for the Ravens, Jackson would have ripped off a huge winning streak and led the Cardinals to the playoffs, right?

Uh, not so fast. That Ravens team had a playoff-caliber roster. The 2018 Cardinals roster was barely XFL-caliber. (We hardly knew ye.) But Jackson would undoubtedly have been an improvement over Rosen, although he still would have been hampered by the offensive system (even with Byron Leftwich still replacing McCoy), and he wouldn’t have taken the league by storm like he did. But… if he had gotten the Cardinals to, say, 5-6 wins, would the team still have fired Steve Wilks? It’s doubtful. But… maybe they would have hired Kliff Kingsbury as OC in the offseason? There are so many interesting ways this could have played out. Maybe the team would have entered the 2020 season with Kingsbury as HC and Jackson as QB…

2017 Draft – Pick #13

The Pick: Haason Reddick (LB, Temple)

The “What If”: Reuben Foster (LB, Alabama)

Analysis: This is a far less interesting “what if” scenario—mostly because neither player involved amounted to much. Talking about Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson would have been more fun, but neither was there at #13 in 2017, and if the team really wanted either of them—really, really wanted—they would have moved up to get them. But they didn’t and instead focused on adding to the defense for Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians’s last hurrah.

Foster was widely acknowledged as the best LB prospect in the draft that year, but he failed a drug test at the combine, which sent his stock plummeting. But the Cardinals have had a history with taking chances on similarly troubled players (Tyrann Mathieu and the next guy on this list), so it’s easy to imagine the team ignoring the warning signs and taking him. How would that have impacted the team?

Not much. Both LBs had nondescript rookie seasons (Reddick was actually more productive with less playing time), but Foster was released by the 49ers halfway through his second season following a domestic violence arrest. He’s currently with Washington recovering from a torn ACL. It’s highly likely he never plays another down in the NFL. Meanwhile, Reddick is still languishing toward the bottom of the depth chart and doesn’t seem likely to play a significant role in 2020. The #13 pick was going to be a bust either way.

One interesting note though: Taking Foster and suffering the PR hit from his subsequent legal issues and release would have been a bigger black mark on Keim’s resume than missing on the Reddick pick. Would Keim still have survived the purge after the 2018 season just months after releasing a former 1st-round pick?

2016 Draft – Pick #29

The Pick: Robert Nkemdiche (DE, Mississippi)

The “What If”: Xavien Howard (CB, Baylor)

Analysis: Man, remember when the Cardinals were drafting at the end of the 1st round rather than the beginning? Those were the days. In 2016, the Cardinals took a chance on a player just like Foster—a top-10 talent who dropped like a stone on draft day due to off-the-field issues. Nkemdiche’s issues were much weirder than Foster’s—he got high and fell out of a window. Nevertheless, the team gambled on his obvious talent with the antepenultimate pick of the 1st round. We all know how that turned out.

But cornerback was also a big need that year. In fact, the team took one with their very next pick—Brandon Williams, also a colossal bust. But what if they had taken Howard, the highest-rated CB left, instead of Nkemdiche? That would have been a masterstroke, as Howard is one of the best CBs in the game today. Imagine him lining up across from Patrick Peterson every Sunday. Even better, imagine him lining across from Peterson instead of Williams in Week 1 of the 2016 season. Bruce Arians has long pointed to that loss to the Patriots as the reason that promising 2016 season unraveled. Perhaps the team wins that game with Howard and returns to the playoffs and makes another deep run.

2015 Draft – #58

The Pick: Markus Golden (DE, Missouri)

The “What If”: Ameer Abdullah (RB, Nebraska)

Analysis: I went with the team’s 2nd-round pick this year for obvious reasons—everyone knows the story by now about how the Cardinals were targeting Abdullah with their pick. But he went to the Lions, the Redbirds pivoted and took Golden—and, of course, Johnson later on. (For what it’s worth, the Cardinals took D.J. Humphries in the 1st that year, and there weren’t any obvious “what if” players for that pick.) What would have happened if the Lions passed on Abdullah and he wound up in Arizona?

Probably nothing good. Although he was electric at Nebraska, Abdullah proved to be a very nondescript pro, never rushing for more than 600 yards or 5 TDs in a single season (although injuries deserve a share of the blame). Nondescript is a good way to describe DJ these days, but he was a force of nature down the stretch in 2015 and for all of 2016 before injuries set in for him as well. The Cardinals still would have been a very good team in 2015 without DJ, but it’s likely they would have lost at least another game or two without his impact, and they would have had a much harder time making it to the NFC title game. And they probably wouldn’t have sniffed .500 in 2016 without his 2000 combined yards and 20 TDs—not to mention Golden’s 12.5 sacks that year.

Oh, and the Hopkins trade? Never would have happened. Even Bill O’Brien isn’t dumb enough to trade an All-Pro receiver for a running back even more washed up than DJ. Or is he?

Final Thoughts

It’s tantalizing to think about a player like Adrian Peterson spending his career with the Cardinals. Or imagining Lamar Jackson (or Patrick Mahomes II or Deshaun Watson) in a Cardinals uniform. There have absolutely been some missed opportunities over the years for this franchise.

Call me crazy, but I’m more than okay with where we’re at right now. Whatever science experiment Keim has been running to get Kyler Murray throwing bombs to DeAndre Hopkins to has paid off. Of course, the next “what if” scenario could be right around the corner…

Do you have any thoughts on these scenarios, Cardinals fans? Any other missed opportunities still hurt? Perform your own weird science experiments in the comments.